One of Jesus’s most repeated sayings in the Gospels is some version of this: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). If we’re wise, we’ll listen carefully to whatever Jesus says, especially what he says repeatedly. And in this case, listening happens to be precisely what he’s telling us to do.
There’s a very, very important reason behind Jesus’s exhortation:
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Mark 4:24–25)
Do you understand what Jesus is saying? The fact that this warning itself is somewhat difficult to understand illustrates his point: listen and ponder carefully, for if you don’t, you will not understand, and if you do not understand, you will lose whatever capacity to understand you do have.
Everything hangs on how well you hear what God is saying — what we commonly call the word of God. And hearing God well requires your close attention. Are you paying attention?
The Strange Purpose of Parables
Jesus issues this warning in the context of telling a series of parables. Parables were riddle-stories in which Jesus hid profound secrets of God’s kingdom in brief, often mundane-sounding metaphors. In the stories recorded in Mark 4, he uses a farmer’s soils (Mark 4:1–8), an oil lamp (Mark 4:21–25), and seeds (Mark 4:26–32).
Read them. Do you understand them? Of course, Jesus explains the parable of the soils (Mark 4:13–20). But what about the lamp or the seeds? These stories sound simpler than they are. We won’t really get them unless we are paying attention.
And we have Bibles! None of Jesus’s original hearers had ever heard these parables before. They weren’t written down so they could be read over and over, have their grammatical structure examined, and be conveniently cross-referenced with other Scriptures. The first hearers heard these stories once. If they weren’t paying attention, they would miss the kingdom. That’s costly distraction.
When Jesus explained to his disciples why he taught in parables, he said he did so — quoting portions of Isaiah 6:9–10 — that his hearers “may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12). Here again, Jesus’s hard-to-understand explanation illustrates his point: if we’re not listening carefully, we’ll miss what he’s saying.
Is God really telling riddles so that people won’t understand? No and yes. Jesus told the parables to reveal spiritual mysteries of the kingdom, and he really wanted people to understand them. That’s why he said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” and “Pay attention.” But his revelatory method tested the spiritual wakefulness and earnestness of the hearers. Those who were listening to really hear would hear. But the spiritually dull and distracted would not. Jesus wanted to give the kingdom to the former, not the latter. Those who would not pay attention would reveal their spiritual dullness — dullness that has serious consequences: missing the kingdom of God.
God’s Counterintuitive Ways
If Jesus’s words here sound counterintuitive, they are. Jesus spoke and acted in ways consistent with God’s words and ways throughout the Bible, captured in this text:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
I’ve seen this passage, or some portion of it, quoted on Christian memes, calendars, and greeting cards, often with a beautiful inspirational landscape, seascape, or skyscape in the background. But if we inserted biblical images as backgrounds, they’d be things like a forbidden tree in Eden, the existence of Satan, a horrific flood, Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob disguised as Esau, Joseph languishing in prison, Israel with a sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them, Rahab the Canaanite prostitute marrying into the messianic bloodline, David hiding in a cave from Saul, Jeremiah weeping over Jewish women boiling their babies, baby Jesus sleeping in a trough, and above all, adult Jesus mutilated and hanging on a Roman cross.
God’s ways truly are not our ways. None of us would have written the story of redemption the way God has. The story itself points to a Personality and intentionality behind it.
And if we’re paying attention, we can detect the same Personality and intentionality in the strange way Jesus communicates the kingdom of God in hard-to-understand parables. None of us would do it that way.
Familiar, Affluent, and Distracted
The key qualifier is if we’re paying attention. Because, as Jesus said, if we’re not paying attention to what God says, we will miss what God is doing. That’s a costly distraction.
By God’s grace, we do have an advantage over Jesus’s original hearers: we have God’s authoritative, written word. In fact, never have so many Christians had so much access to God’s word as we do today.
But we must not be lulled into thinking that so much access to and familiarity with Jesus’s teaching means we don’t face the same danger as those first-century listeners. We may have a clearer view of the kingdom than the crowds who heard Jesus’s parables, but we are as endangered by dull hearing as anyone has ever been (Hebrews 5:11).
Never have Christians possessed so much wealth as Western Christians today, which presents many temptations to us and threatens to destroy us (1 Timothy 6:9–10). And never have Christians been barraged with so many and so varied distractions as we are. Overly familiar, overly affluent, and overly distracted is a recipe for the kind of dull hearing that often manifests as being able to explain what Jesus means without actually doing what he says.
It is a false comfort to be able to accurately teach a text if we do not obey it, if functionally our fleshly anxieties and desires govern us, not Jesus’s commands and promises. This can be a more deceptive form of dull hearing than merely not listening or forgetting.
Pay Much Closer Attention
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). If we’re not paying attention, we may not even realize we’re drifting. We can look around and see lots of other distracted, dull Christians who talk Jesus’s talk without walking Jesus’s walk, figure it must be normal, and assume we’re doing just fine. The only way we know if we’re paying close attention to what Jesus says, in the way that he means it, is if we are really doing what he says (John 14:15).
The Christian life is an attentive life (Mark 13:37; Luke 21:36; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8). The Christian life is a hearing life (Mark 4:24; Luke 8:21; John 10:27; Romans 10:17; Hebrews 3:7–8). But attentive listening to Jesus does not come naturally. It must be cultivated and diligently guarded. And there is no formula for how to pay closer attention. It is cultivated by making attentiveness habitual — by practicing the habits of grace. We learn to pay attention by intentionally trying to pay attention. The Spirit will help us if we ask the Father to teach us (Luke 11:9–10; Psalm 25:4).
So whatever it takes, we must pay attention to what we hear. For Jesus’s ways and words are often counterintuitive, and we live in a destructively distracting age. And everything hangs on how well we hear Jesus.